Field sales has been dying for years. In fact, it’s been ailing for so long that no one noticed its actual time of passing.

Pretty much everyone knows (intuitively, at least) that field sales is dead. But no one’s prepared to acknowledge it.

Not surprisingly, denial is not a winning strategy. Salespeople have adapted to this new reality to the extent that they absolutely must, but few organizations are prepared to explicitly recognize that times have changed. Consequently, few are exploiting the enormous upside that our new reality presents.

Let this article be a stake in the ground!

It’s time to face this new reality and reengineer our sales environments to exploit it. (And it’s probably best we do so before our competitors do.)


The modern salesperson still feels that the field is their rightful place of battle. However, as each year passes, they spend less time there. And, when they do gear up and venture forth, increasingly it’s to perform customer service activities.

The modern salesperson spends the greater proportion of their selling time on the phone, not in the field. It’s frustrating -- and a source of great embarrassment -- but there’s nothing the salesperson can do about it.

There are two powerful forces that collude to keep salespeople away from their company cars:

  1. Salespeople are significantly more efficient when they are inside.
  2. Customers don’t want a salesperson to come visiting unless they conclude that a face-to-face visit is absolutely critical (and they rarely do).

These two forces have converted most field salespeople into reluctant inside salespeople who venture out only occasionally.

Because they are not excited about working inside, they are happy to be distracted from telephone sales by customer service and administrative activities -- meaning that not a lot of selling actually gets done. And because they spend so little time selling face-to-face, many salespeople are either out of practice or simply lacking in skills they've had little cause to develop.

Sales Is No Longer an Outside Endeavor

Sales used to be something that happened "out there" -- in the field. And there’s good reason for that.

Fifty years ago, when the modern sales function evolved, customers were "out there." This is before PBXs, fax machines, cell phones, websites, email, instant messaging, and web conferencing. If an organization wanted to sell something, it had to send salespeople to where customers were. And if potential customers wanted information to assist in their quest for new products and services, they had to request that a salesperson bring that information to where they were.

Salespeople were an information conduit. They added significant value by ferrying information back and forth between the organization (inside) and its customers (outside).

Times, of course, have changed.

Today, customers can easily reach a salesperson on their cell phone or via email. And if our customer wants to consume information privately, they can do that too. They can browse our websites, our competitors’ websites, and those of industry commentators.

Our customers and prospects are no longer "out there." Modern technology has broken down the divide and invited our customers into our organizations. And this is an invitation our customers have been happy to accept.

Once inside, our customers have discovered that they no longer need to consume information via just one conduit. They can interact with multiple people in our organization, via multiple channels. And they like it that way!

Furthermore, customers are no longer dependent upon field salespeople for transactions. They have choices. If they want to purchase, they can do so by phone or online. And woe betide anyone who thinks that they can force customers to transact with salespeople. Increasingly, customers are as loyal to the channel as they are to the brand.

The Inside-Out Sales Function

Because today's environment is so very different from the environment in which the sales function evolved, a radical redesign is required. And when we build this new sales function we need to build it from the inside out -- not from the outside in. This is in keeping with how our customers like to buy.

Consider yourself, by way of example. If you need to make a purchase -- any purchase -- my guess is that your general preference is to buy online (with no human contact whatsoever). And, if this isn’t practical, you’ll probably seek help from a person via online chat or over the telephone.

Even if you are making a large purchase, I doubt your first instinct is to call and request that a salesperson come visit you in your home or place of business. And if a salesperson does come visit with you, it’s likely that this is after quite a number of email and telephone conversations.

If this is how customers buy (and it surely is), then this is how we must sell.

Let's try a thought experiment where we rebuild our sales organization from scratch. An inside-out approach means that we start with an inside sales nucleus -- as close to Operations as possible -- and then add additional layers only when they are absolutely required.

Ecommerce and Customer Service

Who should your first hires be, in your brand new organization? Web and customer service team members.

Your website should allow those customers who are so inclined to serve themselves: To consume information and to transact. (These customers, it should go without saying, are your very best customers, so it makes sense to look after them.)

Your customer service team is an extension of your web presence. Think of it as a concierge service that sits on top of your website. Regardless of what you sell, your customer service team should be responsible for processing simple transactions (those where customers know pretty much what they want), generating quotes, and handling issues.

Inside Sales

Once you have Customer Service looking after simple transactions, your next step should be to add Sales. And your first sales layer should be an inside one.

Your inside salespeople should have skills and knowledge equivalent (or superior) to your competitors’ field salespeople. Because your inside salespeople are inside specialists, they will each have 30 meaningful selling interactions a day.

As part of your inside sales team, you’ll need a promotions machine. I say "machine" because those 30 interactions a day will result in an insatiable hunger for sales opportunities. You will need to generate 10 to 20 sales opportunities a day to keep each inside salesperson busy. Lead generation hires therefore follow inside salespeople.

Field Sales

As you start to scale the inside sales team, you will experience an increasing requirement for field visits. After all, there are still some activities that genuinely do need to be performed outside.

At this point, it will be tempting to recruit a team of traditional salespeople. But a modicum of caution is advised. If you examine those activities that genuinely do need to be performed in the field, you’ll see that they fall naturally into two categories:

  1. Technical activities (e.g. technical requirement discovery and demonstrations)
  2. Enterprise sales activities (e.g. running discovery workshops and presenting to executive teams)

You’ll also discover, in most environments, that the greatest preponderance of activities lands in that first category. This should give you pause.

Turns out, in most organizations, your initial field hires should be technical specialists (with some sales sensibilities), as opposed to archetypal salespeople. These field specialists will be an invaluable resource for your core inside sales team. When inside salespeople discover a requirement for a field activity, they can push it to a field specialist, who can perform the necessary activity and report back to the inside salesperson who then finalizes the sale.

You will discover that you can build quite a significant sales team before you have a requirement to add true enterprise-class salespeople. In fact, if your organization is generating less than $10 million a year in sales, it’s unlikely that you can justify such a hire. You’ll be better off focusing on building out your core inside sales team and pushing enterprise activities to senior executives.

When you can justify your first enterprise sales hire, it’s wise to make two hires. In addition to the salesperson, employ an executive assistant. The executive assistant can take responsibility for the essential inside activities, leaving your (expensive) new enterprise salesperson free to spend 100% of their time in the field. With this configuration, an enterprise salesperson can easily perform three to four field meetings a day -- which is about 10 times the volume of work they could handle if they worked alone.

Built to Scale

You’ll discover that this inside-out approach results in vastly superior interface between you and your customers. And that’s nice. But the better news is that this model is easy and inexpensive to scale. Because almost all of your marketing and sales activity is performed by an inside team, you don’t need regional sales offices, you don’t need layers of management, and you don’t need a team of operations people to process expense reports and adjudicate border skirmishes between over-caffeinated commissioned salespeople.

The death of field sales does not mark the end of field salespeople. They still exist, and they always will. What it does mark is the beginning of a new era, where sales is essentially an inside function.

You’ll come to discover that the inside-out sales model results in happier customers, a lower average cost of sale, and a faster growing business. It’s time to be done with the grieving so we can knuckle down and exploit this exciting new reality.

Do you agree that field sales is dead? Why or why not? 

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Originally published May 8, 2015 7:00:00 AM, updated July 28 2017


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